Around this time last year the great revival started. Wigan Athletic were to not only beat the elite, but to beat them on merit, through champagne football, winning 7 of the last 9 games. Before the revival started we saw an awful performance from Latics at Loftus Road in January, with Queens Park Rangers winning 3-1. Somehow QPR managed to stay up, but by the skin of their teeth. Given the upturn in recent results for Wigan Athletic can we expect a better result in tomorrow’s key encounter at Loftus Road? Some champagne football, even?
Wigan Athletic come into this game after gaining 6 priceless points from home games against Newcastle and Norwich, following a momentous 3-0 win at Everton in the FA Cup. Only one goal has been conceded in these last three matches and late goals have sealed the league wins. Last week Norwich did not force Joel Robles to make a single save, such was the quality of the Wigan defence. In those home games champagne football was a scarce commodity, but the results have been just what the doctor ordered. Latics ground both Newcastle and Norwich down, restricting them, then delivering the hammer blow.
“Must win” is a term that is banded about too freely. Wigan supporters have seen their team lose “must win” games, but nevertheless survive. If this game is a must win for one of the teams tomorrow , then it must be more so for QPR. They lie 8 points adrift with only 7 games left. Even a draw would put them under great pressure in the matches that remains. A draw would not be ideal for Wigan, but it would help keep them afloat. Put simply, this is a more crucial game for QPR than for Latics.
Roberto Martinez deserves credit for sticking his neck out and rewarding the players who helped the club reach the FA Cup semi final. Ali Al Habsi and Gary Caldwell were pivotal in last year’s revival, but they are now on the bench. How times can change. The upturn in results coincides, not for the first time, with the return from injury of Antolin Alcaraz. His recent performances have been a revelation and one wonders what league position Wigan would be in now, if he had been available all season. His central defensive partnership with Paul Scharner has been the centrepiece of recent performances.
Joel Robles is clearly a very capable young goalkeeper, tall and dominant. It was never going to be easy to step into the shoes of fans’ favourite, Ali Al Habsi, but he has handled it well so far. The Omani has not been in the same form this season that he showed previously. However, he is such a capable goalkeeper that his time will come again. For the moment Robles is first choice. The defence has managed to shield Robles up to this point, but tomorrow could well prove to be the acid test for him. His performance could well be the main factor that helps decide the result.
Harry Redknapp refuses to accept that QPR will go down. Looking at the real quality players they have in their squad they should be able to stay up. However, like Wigan they have a penchant for throwing away good results through appalling defensive errors. Tomorrow’s result might well depend on which defence gives it away, rather than which team plays better.
Wigan will probably field an unchanged lineup, although there is a possibility that James McArthur will replace Jordi Gomez in the holding midfield role. Although he made the pass for Arouna Kone’s goal against Norwich, Gomez did not have a good game.
With the FA Cup semi final coming up next weekend, this game comes at a difficult time for Latics. Wembley is sure to be in their players’ heads, although Martinez will surely emphasise the need for a good result tomorrow.
QPR have a wealth of good players to choose from. At their best they could thump Wigan. However, they are in deep trouble and they are playing a team that has a good record against relegation rivals. It is one of those matches that is very hard to predict: it could be a stalemate or even a spectacular result for either team. As far as Wigan are concerned, grinding out another result though strong defence, is probably the way to go. Keep grinding, Latics!